For many English majors, and for reasons explored in this issue of Pedagogy, the Chaucer course may offer the only sustained engagement with the literature of the British Middle Ages. Laurel Amtower and Jacqueline Vanhoutte's Companion to Chaucer and His Contemporaries: Texts and Contexts not only offers novice students comprehensive and accessible historical overviews of the English fourteenth and fifteenth centuries but also allows them to venture "off the grid" with an impressive collection of primary documents, both literary and nonliterary, in accessible translations.
The subtitle of the volume, "Texts and Contexts," gestures to the structure of the eight chapters, each divided roughly in half, with initial discussions of historical topics—politics, societal hierarchies, daily life, religion, war and knighthood, education, the natural and occult sciences, and international exchanges—followed by relevant primary sources. The focus of the volume on "Chaucer and His Contemporaries" makes it particularly apt for a course focusing on the literature of the later Middle Ages (the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), although the text might also be assigned in the second [End Page 391] half of a broader survey of medieval literature. The introductory sections to each chapter, while offering comprehensive and necessary historical context for late medieval literature, are admittedly less helpful for "off-the-grid" inquiries than are the subsequent documents due to frequent references to canonical literary figures of the period. Still, these chapters respond to the discipline's abiding interest in historicizing literary inquiry by focusing on the ways literary authors and texts shape our understanding of late medieval life, as well as the ways the literature is shaped by its historical context. While Chaucer is mentioned more prominently than any other author, the chapters routinely cite such canonical authors as the Gawain poet, William Langland, and Sir Thomas Malory, in addition to less canonical figures such as John Gower, John Lydgate, and a range of dramatists and religious writers anonymous and known, both British and continental.
If the volume's historical overview sections tend to focus on the ultra-canonical figure of Chaucer, whose name (in bold red capitals) and sketched face after all appear on the book's cover, the collections of translated, modernized, and edited primary documents accompanying each chapter allow students the chance to read a wide array of off-the-grid literary and nonliterary texts from antiquity and throughout the Middle Ages. Most of the documents are short excerpts from longer texts, many less than a page and few longer than three or four pages. The brevity allows for a larger number (usually more than a dozen) and thus a wider range of documents to be included in each chapter. Each document is helpfully introduced with a short paragraph containing information on author (where known), source, and subject matter. If instructors will be grateful to have a compendium of difficult-to-find primary sources collected in one approachable volume, students likely will be grateful that Amtower and Vanhoutte have translated and modernized these rare and often difficult Middle English texts, an editorial decision they convincingly defend in terms of accessibility and consistency, as the collection of documents also includes texts translated from other languages.
The documents range from what Amtower and Vanhoutte call "medieval 'best-sellers' like Mandeville's Travels and Anglicus's Of the Properties of Things" (11) to more obscure texts, including court records, personal letters, and religious treatises. The documents accompanying chapter 4 on "Religious Life, Ritual, and Prayer," for example, focus on topics of interest to the study of Chaucer, including Matthew of Paris's account of the murder of Hugh of Lincoln (one source of the Prioress's Tale), as well as texts on clerical abuses by John Wyclif and anonymous Lollards that can be read alongside Chaucer's most corrupt religious figures. But the chapter's documents also [End Page 392] reflect a diversity of medieval attitudes and ideas on important topics: the anti-Semitism of the Hugh of Lincoln account is balanced by Gregory X's thirteenth-century papal bull defending the Jews...